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Most US public schools plan to keep masks optional for start of classes

By Jacqueline Howard, CNN

Students are heading to another school year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but this time, there seem to be fewer discussions and fretting about masks and other mitigation measures — despite a rise of infections sweeping the country.

Most of the largest public school districts in the United States are not requiring masks for the new school year, making masking “optional” as students return to classes and the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant spreads.

Across the country, “schools have become more relaxed in their mask policies,” said Gladys Cruz, president-elect of the School Superintendents Association and district superintendent for Questar III in New York.

Although there is the possibility that such policies could change if Covid-19 case rates rise or fall, everyone in a district might not be receptive to change, Cruz said.

“The possibility of mandating masks is there, in case of a surge, but I would have to say that it’s going to be much more difficult to implement that mask mandate if it came down to that because we have been without masks now for long periods,” said Cruz, whose district starts school in early September.

In its guidance for schools, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking in K-12 schools and early education programs that are in counties with a high Covid-19 community level.

Almost half — 45.8% — of US counties are at high Covid-19 community levels, according to CDC data.

Among the top 500 K-12 school districts, based on enrollment, in the United States, about 98% do not require masks, according to the data company Burbio’s school policy tracker.

Many of the nation’s largest school systems — including Los Angeles Unified, City of Chicago, Miami-Dade County and Clark County in Nevada — start school in August.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases are rising across the United States once again, driven by the Omicron subvariant BA.5, the most transmissible strain of the coronavirus yet. More than 14 million children have tested positive for Covid-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to available state reports; more than 311,000 of these cases have been added in the past four weeks, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week.

Millions of children will be returning to school in the coming days and weeks unvaccinated. A CNN analysis finds that less than half of children and teens ages 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and only a tenth have been boosted.

‘Working to live with this virus’

In some communities, such as those in New York state, classes are not scheduled to start until early September — and school officials are waiting for updates from their local health departments regarding the Covid-19 mitigation measures to implement for the upcoming school year. Many school districts continue to disinfect surfaces and explore upgrading ventilation systems.

“Many schools will continue with some mitigation strategies this fall; such as, cleaning and disinfection, upgrades to HVAC systems. Masks will be optional,” Randall W. Squier, superintendent of schools for Coxsackie-Athens Central School District in New York, wrote in an email to CNN on Tuesday.

“Schools are still struggling with whether to offer a remote learning option for students. If COVID-19 cases surge we would follow any recommendations or mandates from our state department of health,” he wrote.

When it comes to masking, “absent any specific state mask mandate, most superintendents will work with their county health departments to establish guidelines for optional mask wearing,” Squier wrote. “Superintendents attempt to establish a regional approach to any pandemic guidelines to avoid confusion among our families and employees who may work and live in neighboring counties.”

As mask-wearing has become optional in most schools, Squier said, he has noticed tension around masks among parents and staff calm down in his region.

“Since New York State lifted the mask mandate in March, there has been no movement by school districts to reintroduce a mask mandate,” he wrote. “The political rhetoric at school board meetings regarding mask mandates has settled down since the mandate was lifted.”

Community tension around masking “has dissipated,” said Daniel Bittman, superintendent for Independent School District 728 in Minnesota.

For Bittman’s district, which starts its new school year after Labor Day, masks will be optional but recommended for the students across its five counties.

“We will not require masks for this particular school year,” Bittman said.

“Masking in our particular district is always recommended, particularly if cases are added at a point that we consider to be critical. At this point, the number of cases are significantly low,” he said. “So we’re working closely with our Department of Education as well as our Department of Health to monitor that and so we will not be requiring them at this time.”

Bittman added that if there were a surge in cases, there could be mask requirements in a particular school or classroom but not on a district-wide basis.

In many districts, said Cruz, of the School Superintendents Association, superintendents and school boards are in constant consultation with their local health departments in developing Covid-19 mitigation measures and policies — something that might become an ongoing part of living with Covid-19 and other infectious diseases in the future.

“We’re definitely working hand in hand. Schools and governments are really working to live with this virus and figure out how we can continue to keep schools open for students,” Cruz said. “I think we’re now in a place where we’re learning and working to live with it.”

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